Nepal

Responding to COVID-19 requires accountable and responsive actions

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AUHORS: NEETU POKHAREL AND SOM PRASAD NIROULA

BACKGROUND:

The COVID-19 has posed the unprecedented global health crisis including Nepal, that has also been pushing us into fear and anxiety. The coronavirus has spread almost all geographical units of Nepal. As of September 2021 779,492 people got infected, 10,984 people lost their lives and 742,306 people recovered. However, there are still more than 26,202 active cases (MoHP, 2021).

The government started the complete lockdown in the first phase in April 2020, and the second phase in April 2021 focused on impeding the transmission of the virus through the migrant workers or people who traveled into the country. As the transmission of the virus reaches the community level, the government is unsure about the transmission. However, the local government proactively started the local level lockdown to limit the rapid transmission.

The government claims that it has been providing better health services in terms of testing affected people than other South Asian countries. However, human rights advocates pointed out that the poor management of quarantine centers, sluggishness of testing process, mismanagement of resources, not able to make the private health institutions accountable and responsible. The government’s effort is limited in reaching out to the communities in public service delivery.

People were in complete lockdown which also poses another challenge for sexual minorities, as well as women who have to stay at home despite the existence of domestic violence in both lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. The report indicated that the cases of domestic and gender-based violence have increased in times of lockdown. There is no effective and quick response from the government or other institutions during the crisis.

The economic downturn has been experienced in Nepal also due to the COVID-19 as it appears globally. The government expected about an 8 percent growth rate at the last fiscal year (July 2019 to July 2020), however, the economic growth rate was limited to 1.7 percent. The Nepali economy is also highly dependent on the remittances of Nepali migrant workers from the Gulf, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, and India.

According to the World Bank’s recent report, the remittances have been reduced by 43.4 percent in the mid of May 2020. The remittances of the migrant workers are the major income sources of the families for their health, education, and livelihood support. Most of the informal sector workers working in different sectors like in hotel, tourism, construction, entertainment, etc. also lost their jobs, or their wages have been reduced by the employer.

Public health services are not in condition to respond to the cases of coronavirus in the present context. Hospitals have limited infrastructures and the majority are in the cities. Local provincial governments, and local governments, managing the quarantines and the condition of the temporary quarantines are apathetic in terms of service provided to the people who were forced to admit while coming back home.

People are forced to bring their own food, treated badly, and in some cases, people are asked to pay for the services, and no proper management in the quarantine centers. Government’s report shows that a total of 840 ventilators are available for all the patients. It is estimated that if the case number increase to 10 thousand then about 5 percent of the people require ventilators. In this circumstance, the available services need to be shared among the other admitted patients at the hospital.

MISMANAGEMENT AND CORRUPTION IN THE TIME OF CRISIS

People are facing hardship and difficulties due to the spread of the coronavirus. There was a shortage of preventive health materials like masks, hand sanitizers, and testing kits in the hospitals. The government took a long time to fulfill the procedural requirements to purchase health-related goods.

In times of adopting the procedures, the government failed to maintain transparency. Contrary to the need of the people, the government purchased testing kits and personal protective devices. The government formed a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), to investigate the irregularities of the purchase of the materials. The preliminary report implicated the health Minister and authorities for the manipulation of public funds.

The government has been further alleged of purchasing low-quality testing kits and medical devices. The government awarded the contract to Omni Group without any competitive bidding process. The civil society and the media continuously raised their voices and the government was forced to cancel the contract on the pretext of failing to bring the equipment on a timely basis.

The government has mandated the Nepal Army for the supply of medical equipment through the government-to-government channel from China. Media and civil society highly raised their concerns about the mandate to the engagement of the army in purchasing equipment. Even the army delayed in delivery of the testing kits on time. People of the different quarantine centers of Rautahat and Chitwan due to lack of the testing kits.

Civil society has been raising its voices and demanding the government’s accountability in responding to the crisis in effective and efficient ways. Youth activists launched a campaign ‘Enough Is Enough’ demanding that PCR tests to all, effective protection mechanism of front line health workers, protection of human rights of the coronavirus’ affected people in terms of their privacy and avoiding discrimination, protection of the migrant and informal sector workers in terms of their testing, and maintaining the transparency in response the health crisis.

The government used force to stop the protest into the street then the youth went on hunger strike (fast-unto-death). The government and the campaigner reached a 12 point agreement that includes expediting the testing process, proving sufficient personal protective devices to health workers and proper management of quarantines. The government failed to implement the 12 points agreement and the youth again started their campaign following the relay hunger strike. Activists marched in front of the Prime Minister’s resident at Baluwatar, have been arrested and detained temporarily as they have protested against the mismanagement of resources. The government lacks the commitment to address the genuine issues that people raising in terms of addressing the health crisis which is going to lead to an economic crisis.

The local government established the quarantine for the people returning back home from abroad particularly the Nepali workers coming from India to Nepal. The temporary shelters were pathetic in terms of available services. For instance, the temporary quarantine of Golbajar, Sirah retains 64 peoples (9 women and 58 men). The people need to share the common toilet for both females and males, having 9 beds in a single room that makes it difficult for the people to maintain the physical distance, no test available for the people till 10 days of their stay in the quarantine, women having a difficult time during their menstruation period, no health workers attending the quarantine, the newcomer and people staying have to stay together and no proper food and diet is provided to the people at the quarantine center (Mukti Nepal, 2020). There are several temporary quarantine centers in different districts and having similar issues. However, the government lacks its concentration and plan to improve the condition of the quarantines.

The black market of selling goods in higher amounts started immediately while the crisis started in March 2020. Private firms, small retailers, and business houses created artificial shortages of the goods like masks, medical equipment, and supplies. The government proactively penalized those who created artificial shortages of goods. It is reported that the government has secured about 7 million rupees from the penalty of the different forms who cheated the customer. The government has monitored the irregularities of the business houses and found that most of the retailers do not provide invoices, sell low-quality goods, produce low-quality sanitizers, etc. during the lockdown and the business firms cheated the customers.

Nepal Police Arrested one of the well-known business people who was also the honorary consul of Kyrgystan for selling the thermal gun at a high price and the government and filed a case. The police also arrested a Mayor in Bara District for providing rotten rice to the people as relief material. Business firms and retailers are trying to manipulate the crisis to accumulate property in the black market. It clearly indicates the lack of honesty and ethical behavior of the people in times of crisis.

SPIKED VIOLENCE ON WOMEN AND MINORITIES

The lockdown impact is enormous for the women, Dalits, people with disabilities, and sexual minorities who face different types of violence at their homes. The situation confined them to live in difficult circumstances bearing the violence from the family members like husband, relatives, parents, and neighbors. The people are forced to remain silent due to no option of seeking or getting help from others in the community.

The National Women Commission (NWC) recorded 604 cases of domestic violence in a period of two-month lockdown in April and May 2020 at the beginning. It is noted that cases of domestic violence increased by 77 percent during the period of lockdown (NWC, 2020). Civil society organizations working to promote the human rights of women also noted the cases of domestic violence increased in the period of lockdown. The WOREC Nepal has reported 336 cases of violence against women, from which 176 were cases of violence against women and girls in 18 districts out of 77 districts since the lockdown began on 24 March up to 1 May 2020 (WOREC Nepal, 2020).

Most of the perpetrators are husbands, relatives, friends, and neighbors. In addition, cases of rape increased during the period of lockdown. For example, a woman and a child were raped a month after the lockdown began in Ropla. According to Nepal Police, the rate of women being raped increased threefold in lockdown. In the initial three weeks of lockdown, 86 cases of rapes and 72 cases of domestic violence were reported to the police. Similarly, the number of abused children increased in lockdown. A 15 year-old girl was raped by three men nearby forest of Dhangadi where she was grazing her cattle in the third week of the lockdown.

In other instances in the province number five recorded about 38 rape cases within the 37 days of lockdown as well as the 17 cases of domestic violence reported to the police (MAHURI Home, 2020). These are some of the emblematic incidents that have been reported by the media and human rights defenders during the beginning of the lockdown. It is assumed that there are several cases of violence that have not been reported due to the fear and intimidation of the victims. The police and security agencies were not very proactive in addressing the violence against women.

The focus of the security agencies or law enforcement agencies towards the maintenance of lockdown and the spread of virus also limited the movement and intervention of the security agencies. In the context the social violence like caste-based violence and discrimination also increased in this period.

The perception survey of the Dalit NGO Federation (DNF) reveals that about 38 percent of the people felt caste-based discrimination during the lockdown. In addition, the Dalit women and children reported about 81 percent of discrimination in comparison to non-Dalit who felt only 18 percent of discrimination at the same time period (DNF, 2020).

There are several cases of brutal killings of Dalits and need to advocate for justice and even the communities need to protest to ensure justice (AI, 2020). The Dalits also faced difficulties in accessing the public services due to timely available information, lacking the legal identity documents and relief distributed in geographically remote locations. The Dalits have been facing hardship as the community does not have well-supported system and highly depend on the wage-earning on daily basis (Nepali, G., Sundas, U., Adhikari, K., 2020)

The effective public services (distribution of relief) materials are a pre-requisite for the communities to sustain their livelihoods in times of this crisis. In addition, people with disabilities also have challenges in getting the information properly and accessing social security (disability allowances). The National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN) conducted a rapid assessment and found that about 41 percent of the people lack the information (NFDN, 2020). The information materials are not accessible to people with disabilities particularly people with hearing difficulties. Accessing services is another challenge, as no information flows at the local level.

Sexual minorities also faced adversity of the coronavirus and were further marginalized in families and society. The communities have lost jobs and the person is forced to move into their family. This further lead to conflict or disputes with the member of the family. The LGBTIQA members might declare their sexual identity and it is not being accepted by their family and the community is forced to accept the prolonged harassment, verbal abuses which deteriorate their psychological health (BDS, 2020).

It is essential to provide basic items such as food, alternative shelter, support for the medication, and protection from abuses and domestic violence. During the time of relief distribution, it noted that some of the sexual minorities are not able to access relief as their legal identity shows the ‘other’ categories instead of male or female. This example clearly indicates that the local authorities failed to recognize the sexual minorities which face severe problems. They have been facing severe conditions during the lockdown in their families.

CONCLUSION

The rapid spread of the coronavirus is impacting most people, however, most of the vulnerable and marginalized communities suffer more in terms of losing livelihood that depends on daily work and wages. The economic downturn also limits the state’s capacity to provide the relief that they need in times of crisis.

The existing health crisis is going to lead further to the economic crisis that has been indicated in times after the four-month-long lockdown. The malpractices and mismanagement of resources lead the frustration among the people that the political dishonesty and deception to the public in times of crisis may lead to violence.

The ineffectiveness of controlling violence on women, Dalits, people with disabilities, and sexual minorities clearly indicates of government’s irresponsibility. The public also clearly noticed the unethical action of the business communities that include the big business houses, retailers, and health-related suppliers in this crisis. The people’s expectations are high in times of crisis and looking forward the accountable and responsible government.

LIST OF REFERENCES

Amnesty International Nepal (AI). 2020. Press statement. URL: https://amnestynepal.org/press-release/nepal-authorities-must-deliver-justice-for-dalit-killings/ Accessed on 1 August 2020

Blue Diamond Society (BDS). 2020. Press Statement on Impact of Covid to Youth. Unpublished document.

DNF Nepal. 2020. Rapid Assessment Report. Unpublished.

MAHURI Home. 2020. Human Rights Monitoring Report. Unpublished.

Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP). 2020. Status of COVID Portal. URL: https://covid19.mohp.gov.np/#/ Archived on August 1, 2020.

Mukti Nepal. 2020. Status of the Quarantine Center. Unpublished report

National Human Rights Commission of Nepal. 2020. Human Rights Monitoring Report. Accessed on 1 August 2020

National Women Rights Commission of Nepal (NWC). 2020. Monitoring of Gender based violence in Chitra and Bishak. URL: https://www.nwc.gov.np/Publication_file/5edca7c05d490_First_Lockdown_Report_(_Chaitra,_2076-Baisakha_2077).pdf accessed on 1 August 2020.

Nepali, G., Sundas, U., Adhikari, K. 2020. Impact of COVID-19 on Dalits. Samata Foundation, Kathmandu

WOREC Nepal. 2020. 336 Cases of Violence Against Women And Girls Committed During Lockdown. URL: https://www.worecnepal.org/content/131/2020-05-20

PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHORS ONLY AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE OFFICIAL POSITION OF THE UNIVERSITY FOR PEACE